During a discussion with a friend this week, I was asked what my favorite film is. That question I have an answer for, but then she asked what my top 5 films are.
This is considerably more difficult to answer for me; picking my most influential is easy, but in my 23 years, I’ve seen a LOT of movies, with a large amount of variation between them. Do I pick movies that received critical praise during their time, or do I go off the films I’ve watched the most times?
I decided to pick 5 films that affected me on some level, movies that left a marked effect on me after the first time I watched them, or required a second watch to fully take in. Movies that still hold a certain degree of “magic” to them even after tens of watches.
[Note: I listed my number one favorite, the others are in no particular order.]
1: The Big Lebowski (Coen Bros., 1998)
The Coen Brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski involves guns, kidnapping, money and three men’s struggle to practice for their upcoming bowling tournament. From start to finish, the film is a masterpiece: Jeff Bridge’s portrayal of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski comes across as Jeff Bridges playing himself, an unassuming middle-aged man who doesn’t seem to hold any occupation, but manages to get by. After being attacked in his home by debt collectors who mistake him for millionaire Jeff Lebowski, The Dude is thrust headfirst into the overarching caper, and enlists the help of his friends. Walter, played by John Goodman, is a divorced veteran struggling with anger issues, and Steve Buscemi’s Donnie is a guy who doesn’t seem to have the greatest grasp on what is happening.
This is a movie that divides people: half love it and half hate it. I am of the former (if that wasn’t already clear), but not because I necessarily think the kidnapping plot is all that remarkable or life-changing. In fact, I believe the kidnapping plot is only a device to convey a larger message to the audience. The plot is really a commentary on human existence: for all of the advancements the characters make in the caper, nothing really has any major impact on Walter and Dude. In some ways, that’s how life is: the paths for different individuals might be drastically different, and each person plays a different role in their own existence, but everyone meets the same fate. Some of us may be destined to be the hero and save the day, but not everyone is.
Dude’s ability to accept the changes in his world is what makes him the protagonist; Walter is generally the man with the plan, unflinching in his resolve and his ‘get out of my way’ attitude. However, rather than solve things, this only causes grief for everyone involved. It is Dude who finds out all of the plot-important information via his ability to be friendly and luck his way into the right company. Even when he tries some kind of genre-savvy detective work (a la this scene), it rarely ends up solving anything.
Add in the soundtrack (mostly consisting of 70s bands and songs) and the cinematography of scenes like this, and you have possibly the most important film of the last 40 years. And I say that without an ounce of sarcasm. The Big Lebowski is a silly high-concept movie.
2: Adventureland (Mottola, 2009)
Adventureland is, at first glance, a largely unassuming coming-of-age story about college kids stuck working at an amusement park during the summer of 1987. However, when you examine everything that goes into this film, it paints a significantly more well-rounded picture of the film.
The film stars a pre-“Social Network” Jesse Eisenberg and a mid-“Twilight” Kristen Stewart, young actors just before their popularity and ability was fully realized. I remember absolutely thinking Kristen Stewart was unable to do anything but look distant before I saw her in Adventureland; her performance as Em is the polar opposite of the lack of emotion we see in her as Bella in Twilight.
The first time I saw this movie was during my last semester at Eastern Illinois University, and I couldn’t help but connect with the protagonist, a recent college graduate without a concrete plan for what happens next. Eisenberg’s James is a kid whose plans going awry starts the film off, and by the end he comes to terms with not being completely sure of anything.
The late 1980s soundtrack to this film brings me back to my own childhood, which might be another reason why it made the list. Songs from Falco and Crowded House play in the amusement park because that was the pop music of the time, but everyone is far more interested in Lou Reed and The Replacements outside of work. It’s the perfect blend of nostalgia-inducing 80s pop and alternative.
Adventureland doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but as far as teen comedies go, I would say it belongs in the same league as Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller. I probably watched this movie 16 times in the 16 weeks of my last semester at college, and it never got old.
3: Goodfellas (Scorcese, 1990)
I knew as soon as I started think about this list that I was going to have one mafia film on it; I just didn’t know which of them it would be. Goodfellas takes the win for me, mainly because it seems the most encompassing. While some would argue that The Godfather trilogy is a superior set of movies, but no one of them compares to Goodfellas in terms of putting a complete story into 2 hours of film.
We see Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill from his start as a teenager in the employ of the Lucchese crime family, through his rise to a power position in the organization, through his own decline and drug use, and eventually his time as an informant and entry into the Witness Protection Program. The film has all the violence of a film like The Godfather, but is notably more implicit about it; a lot of the deaths happen off screen, and we as the audience only see the aftermath. This montage in particular highlights how still images of the aftermath can be as jarring as any over-the-top murder sequence, and it’s absolutely one of my favorite scenes in any film.
This movie has a certain magic to it, I think. I’ve only seen the full thing once or twice, but I always catch the edited version on television. When that happens, I always end up sitting down through the commercials and watching the whole thing. Something about the way it’s filmed, the soundtrack (the scene with the end of Clapton’s ‘Layla’ I linked to is only the tip of the iceberg on that), Liotta and DeNiro and Pesci giving great performances – all of that sticks with me even after I finish the film.
4: Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966)
This is the weird outlier on my list: it came out in 1966, and most people I talk to about films have never heard of it. However, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up is quite possibly the most interesting look at the power of perspective in relation to the image that I have ever seen.
For starters, it follows a fashion photographer, Peter, in swinging 1960s London. Being a fashion photographer, Peter is a man obsessed with the image, and brings his camera everywhere. At first, the film simply follows him from photographing industrial workers for an art book to a fashion shoot, to an antique shop where he finds a propeller that he buys and simply places against a wall in his flat.
The propeller is part of a larger commentary on the power image. Peter has absolutely no use for an antique plane propeller, but he buys it and puts it in his flat because it is “cool,” a fabricated idea that has some kind of unwritten rules and parameters. Likewise, this scene (featuring a young Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar with the Yardbirds) shows how powerful image is in the right context. As soon as Peter leaves the show, the fretboard he struggled to get out is suddenly meaningless. It has lost its “cool” factor, and is discarded immediately.
However, the idea of image is not limited to these vignettes; the overarching plot involves a murder that may or may not have actually happened, and the one picture Peter has that may or may not have evidence of the murder in it. He feverishly blows up the photo until the film grain overtakes any recognizable shape, and through a turn of events, his entire collection of photos is stolen from his house.
The film closes with a disappointed and unsure Peter coming across a troupe of nomadic hippies playing a pretend game of tennis. This scene is kind of odd, so I’ll just let the video speak for itself:
Ironically, while the rest of the films so far stand out in some capacity because of their memorable soundtracks, Blow Up is almost entirely done with ambient sound, and this might be part of what makes it so memorable.
5: In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008)
I’m a fan of dark comedy, so the last spot on this list probably could have been any number of movies, but for some reason, In Bruges stuck out to me. Colin Farrell plays Ray, a hitman who has just botched an assignment and accidentally killed a child in the process. Farrell and his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson, probably best known as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter series) are sent by their employer to the Belgian city of Bruges, an historic town that Ray absolutely despises.
The entire movie is motivated by the dramatic irony that Ray is scheduled to be killed by Ken on orders from their boss. Ken tries to get Ray to appreciate the “fairy tale town” he is going to die in, but Ray just wants to get out of “fucking Bruges” and go somewhere else.
Really, there’s not much plot to be had, outside of a romantic interest Ray meets in a drug deal-turned attempted robbery, but that doesn’t matter. The film’s scenes are all just Farrell being curmudgeonly and engaging in serious self-loathing.
That video pretty much speaks to the rest of the film’s ability to make me giggle at the misfortune of others. However, the more time we get from Ray, the more sympathetic he becomes, and by the final fight scene, I found myself feeling bad for him in his misfortune. I’d recommend this film to anyone who wants to laugh at something that shouldn’t be as funny as it is. Definitely not a first date movie, unless you’ve already ascertained your date’s twisted sense of humor.
[Well, there you have it, the top 5 movies for me as of Wednesday, April 1st, 2014. I hope I picked something you haven’t seen before, and I apologize if any of the clips I linked to put you, the reader off from watching them.]